Ferdinand Magellan and me (24) Disaster part 3




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.ships of the desert

Ships of the desert

At dawn, the situation looked desperate. Wathara lay on her side only 10 metres from the low tide mark, slamming on the rocks, shuddering from keel to masthead with surf breaking over her. We were finished. Even if she survived until the next high tide there was no way to get her off without a tug, of which the nearest was in Aden – 600 miles away.
Three vehicles drove down to the beach that morning and half a dozen Dandar men stared at the pitiful sight. I waded ashore and glumly told them the obvious.
“The boat is finished. She has dragged three anchors during the night.”
One of the men, the foreman of the road gang, rubbed his chin and said, “I tink ve might do sometink.”
An hour later, two huge earth-moving trucks came to join the other. The crews went in to action, running out wires from winches on the trucks to nylon strops they rigged around Wathara’s hull. They wedged baulks of timber under the boat and the trucks took the strain. Slowly, inch by inch, she edged towards the shore. For three hours in drizzling rain and cold wind they coaxed her up the bank until she lay above the level of high tide.
We spent 10 days lying there on the edge of the desert with the boat heeled over at 30 degrees. The day after we dragged her ashore the rain stopped, the wind turned and the sea flattened – conditions that would have enabled us to get her off the day before. The sky became a brilliant blue with a haze over the mountains that accentuated their rugged beauty. Bucko had a new playground chasing yellow crabs until one of them bit him on the nose and he gave that away. Camels wandered past and Bucko tried his hand at herding them like a sheep dog but they either ignored him or gazed upon him with contempt.

Living at an angle of 30 degrees was interesting. Robin was deeply depressed by these events, perhaps blaming herself. We could only sleep on the downhill side of the bunk or else on the cabin sole and took turns in having Bucko for a bed warmer, at which he was highly inefficient. The Dandar crew would run us into the camp each day for a shower and a meal in the canteen. Sigfus offered accommodation but also warned of thieves if we left the boat unattended so we decided against. We came away loaded up with cheese and salami, eggs, milk and apologies that the bread had not yet been baked. Later that day Lars and his wife Greta arrived at the boat with the bread and jokes about how we needed one leg longer than the other.
News had obviously travelled and the locals came to stare. One introduced himself in good English as the manager of the future fish-processing plant in Nishtun. He was concerned that we had not reported to police or Customs to have our papers regulised, as he called it. He went away and returned an hour or so later with the local policeman who was also the Customs officer, and I thought, ‘Oh shit, here we go.’
With a sinking feeling we set out in his Toyota for the 50 kilometre drive to Al Ghaida, the capital of that governate of South Yemen. The road was a rocky track through the desert and we jolted and bumped at dangerous speed all the way, passing stray camels, chardor-clad women herding goats and houses built of cement bricks where people squatted in the shade. The fish plant manager, named Naji, had come along as interpreter. He complained of a headache after a night’s drinking with the Danes.
We were shown into a dim, cool room where two officials in while robes sat at opposite ends of a huge T-shaped table. A scribe took down our details that we dictated to Naji. Someone brought cold cans of Pepsi. Passports were examined, stores lists scrutinised and we were quizzed on our reason for arriving in South Yemen without a visa.
Normally I would have claimed Force Majeure but I had a vague idea that one of its interpretations is ‘Act of God,’ and, being a rabid atheist, I did not want to get into a theological discussion with a Muslim. I attempted to explain that because of the bad weather I could not navigate by the Sun or the stars. Naji translated this and also the official’s response, which was, ‘Then you are here by the will of God?”
“Yes,sir.”
Our passports were stamped and we were free to go. Naji translated the last comment by one of the officials: “Are you hungry?”
“Hungry? Well, yes actually.”
“Come.”
A door opened leading into a kind of cafeteria where we were treated to a meal of what may have been goat soup, bread and very sweet tea. It is the first and only time I have been treated to a free lunch by a customs officer, although in a later adventure I admit to being kissed by one.

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Ferdinand Magellan and me (23) – Disaster part 2



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shipwreckedwhilecircumnavigatingtheworldinMagellan's wakeA convoy of four-wheel drive vehicles appeared out of the desert and we prepared to meet our doom, expecting wild-eyed fanatics flourishing AK-47s. Wathara was easy pickings for any pirate or other renegade. The two Arabs who had found us before climbed out of the vehicles along with four or five other men. They started shouting and waving for us to come ashore and at first I thought perversely that I would force them to come out to us if they wanted to get us. Then I thought, what’s the use? They’ll get us in the end.
I climbed into the dinghy and rowed ashore, getting swamped as I landed.
“You have some trouble eh?” said one of the men, who looked European.
“No,” I snarled as I clambered up the rocky bank, “we do this once a month just for fun.”
The man looked puzzled for a moment and then burst into laughter, thrusting out his hand to shake.
“I am Lars Andersen. You can do nothing now because the tide is going down. Come with me to the camp.”
“Lars, that’s Swedish isn’it?”
“Danish. I am from Dandar Construction Company. We build the road over there.”
He waved a hand toward the stony hills and now I saw big yellow bulldozer crawling through the terrain.
“But the Arabs were shooting at us this morning. I thought they were terrorists or something.”
He threw his head back and had a good laugh over this joke.
“They do that all the time. They shoot at us when we want to build the road through their herd of camels.”
By some amazing chance we had managed to wreck the boat only a few miles from Dandar’s base camp where they were building a fish processing plant for the Yemeni trawler industry. At no other point on this coast would we have found any sign of life apart from crabs and camels.
Because of the phenomenal rain, parts of the road had been washed away and as we drove to the camp we passed backhoes, front end loaders and dump trucks pulled off to the side in the mud.
There were about 150 men in the camp, mostly Danish with some Swedes and Portuguese. Several had their wives and children along, living in comfortable, air-conditioned prefabricated houses. The camp was laid out around the shores of a bay where a jetty had already been built and factories and storehouses were under construction.

I was introduced to the project boss, an Icelander named Sigfus, a tall balding man in his forties with a totally expressionless face and piercing blue eyes. As if it were the most ordinary thing in the world to have a yacht wrecked at his door he outlined the possibilities. They had a barge with a powerful winch there in the bay.
“Yes?” I said. “But it would need good anchors and a long line on the winch so it could anchor well offshore.”
“Yes, it has that, he said thoughtfully, “but unfortunately the engine is out of action until we get some spare parts.”
“Oh,” I said.”
“We have a supply ship coming from Aden that could certainly pull your boat off the rocks.”
“That sounds great,” I said.
“Unfortunately not for another week or ten days.”
“Oh,” I said. “The boat will be wrecked in a week.”
“We also have a loader that could pick up your boat and take it out into deeper water. “How deep is your boat?”
“The draft is six feet or 180 centimetres.”
“Ah, then it is not possible, I’m afraid, to go into such deep water.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Perhaps we could lift your boat with our mobile crane and put it on a trailer.”
“Oh yes? That sounds good.”
“But of course the road is too bad now, with the rain.”
I was beginning to think this guy was some kind of sadist taking delight in teasing me.
“But never mind,” he said gloomily. “We will not allow your boat to be wrecked. The high tide is about four o’clock this afternoon, when we will try to get it off.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know how I’m going to pay you. I have no cash, only travellers’ cheques.”
Still without a flicker on his face or a spark in his eye he waved a hand in the air and said, “there will be no charge.”
……………………………………………….
That afternoon with the help of three Danish volunteers and a big truck we began trying to winch her off using three anchors and the engine. I ran the anchors out in the little dinghy, which was half full of water as I struggled against the surf to get far enough offshore to obtain a decent pull on the anchors. I don’t know how many times I made that trip with an anchor hanging over the dinghy’s transom until I reached the full scope of the warp. I dropped the anchor and rowed back to the boat to begin the heartbreaking business of winching. It was heartbreaking because we knew that every metre of line we retrieved only meant the anchor was dragging.
That night was the most dreadful of our lives. We lay on our bunks utterly exhausted, hearing the waves break as they approached and smashed into Wathara attempting to ride over them. Then she was dumped on the rocks with a shuddering jolt that jarred her from keel to masthead. Boulders were ground to pieces under her keel and the noise sent shivers down my spine. The anchors were still dragging.

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Ferdinand Magellan and me (22) -Disaster

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We were bound for Djibouti, a former French colony near the narrow neck that separates the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden, about 1800 miles from Goa. The first few days were beautiful sailing but as we approached the Gulf of Aden the wind fell light and we had a day of drifting with a whale and her calf spouting noisily nearby. Then the wind came in from the west, dead on the nose. Finally, it began to rain, almost unknown in this area. The one hazard the Gulf of Aden is normally free from was to be our nemesis.
We caught a glimpse of the coast of South Yemen before the wind freshened, bringing heavy rain and lightning. Now followed two days of erratic wind with storms and calms; lightning, heavy rain and dark, threatening clouds. There was no sign of Sun or stars and observations were impossible. Once or twice I glimpsed the land and set a course to clear Ras Fartak, a headland jutting 20 miles out into the gulf.
Handing over the watch to Robin at midnight, I explained that if she could not maintain a course of 240 she should go on to the starboard tack, the wind at this time being southerly. I pointed to a light in the distance, which was a ship that had overtaken us earlier. Then I went to bed, only to be wakened three hours later by a crash and a jolt that nearly threw me out of the bunk.
Scrambling on deck stark naked I found Robin still gripping the wheel staring at the compass.
“Two four zero,” she said, almost in tears.
The yacht was grinding over the rocky bottom, still under way. Immediately I let go the anchor and Robin dropped the sails. With hindsight, this was a mistake. I should have left the mainsail up and run the engine to turn her into the wind. By dropping the sails the boat came upright and the diesel engine at full throttle could not shift her.
“Okay, we’ll have to try and lighten her up. Dump the fresh water, the books and the charts. That should lift her a couple of inches.”
Dressing hastily, I ran out the spare anchor on a long warp and winched on it, but it dragged on the rocky bottom. I began ferrying the books and charts ashore as Robin wrapped them in plastic bags. The rain had now eased but the wind was still fresh onshore and breaking seas pounded her on the rocks and swamped me in the dinghy.
Dawn revealed the bleakest prospect I had ever seen anywhere in the world. The rock-strewn coastal plain was backed by a range of hills rising to bare mountains in the distance. Less than a mile farther on the beach gave way to the cliffs of Ras Fartak fronted by reefs extending a mile or more into the sea. If we had struck on those reefs we’d be in worse trouble than we were now and God knows, I thought miserably, we’re in enough trouble as it is. The only sign of habitation was a distant group of mud houses. Thousands of yellow crabs swarmed over the beach. Bucko yapped at them. At least he was having fun.
Several inches of Wathara’s antifouling were now exposed and it was clear the tide was falling. We could only wait. As we huddled over toast and coffee, our hearts jumping into our mouths each time Wathara slammed on the rocks, there came a shout from the shore. Climbing on deck we saw two Arabs straight out of the movies standing on the shore gesticulating and shouting. They wore baggy trousers, jackets and turbans, with bandoliers of cartridges across their chest, ammunition for the ancient Lee Enfield rifles that they waved. Bucko was barking his head off and they ceased for a while but then resumed.
Hoping for the best, I smiled and waved regally, doing my impersonation of the Queen of England, at which one of the Arabs fired a shot over Wathara’s mast.
“Oh God,” Robin muttered and scuttled below.
I ducked down behind the cockpit coaming feeling thankful, not for the first time for Wathara’s steel hull. Now I remembered the scuttlebutt in Don Windsor’s establishment in Galle. Several yachts were choosing to go around the bottom of Africa rather than the Red Sea because of the danger of pirates, political and official corruption and training camps for terrorists. Had we fallen into a cauldron of political violence?
After a while the Arabs went away, which was possibly worse than having them in view. Had they gone for reinforcements? Fearfully, we gathered passports and important documents and packed a bag with clothes. Tearfully, Robin included a jar of Bucko’s soya bean pellets. Who could know what the future held?>/body>




disaster


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Ferdinand Magellan and me (21)

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Wathara under sail in the Arabian Sea

Ferdinand Magellan was shipwrecked on one of the Lakshadweep Islands in 1509. The circumstances are not known but navigation was a dark art in the 16th century. Some ships carried astrologers to give advice to captains and pilots. Many came to grief because they had no way to determine longitude. It was another 150 years before an English carpenter named Harrison built a chronometer suitable for use at sea and accurate enough to enable navigators to find their longitude by observation of Sun, Moon and stars. Although they knew the world was round and consisted of 360 degrees of longitude, medieval navigators had no idea how many miles or feet or yards were in a degree of longitude. Columbus and Magellan both underestimated the circumference of the Earth by a factor of about one third. Magellan was astonished by the breadth of the Pacific Ocean and lost many men to starvation and scurvy because he had underestimated the amount of victuals required..
Aground in the Lakshadweep Islands in 1509 Magellan achieved a level of fame that brought him to the favourable notice of Viceroy Almeida. He proposed to take the longboat to Cochin and bring back a ship to take off the marooned crew. Fearing abandonment, the crew revolted, or at least they exercised their right to petition the captain with their grievance. Magellan capitulated, showing a side of his nature not often revealed. He agreed to send the pilot and quartermaster for help and stayed behind to reassure the crew. He earned kudos from Almeida for that response but later evoked Albuquerque’s displeasure, both of whom reported their opinions to King Manuel. Whether he realised it or not, Magellan was being drawn into the hotbed of Portuguese politics that would later cause him grief.

Steering well clear of the islands where Magellan was wrecked, we headed out on our next leg to Djibouti in the Red Sea. It was glorious sailing with a steady nor-easter. Bucko took the opportunity to relax and mounted his lookout post dozing on the cabin top. Wathara was slicing along effortlessly at 140 or 150 miles a day. Not bad for an old cruising yacht.
Unlike Magellan, I had an accurate quartz crystal clock and a nautical almanac produced by the British Admiralty. I have always been awed by the process of celestial navigation, which is only a short step away from astrology. Indeed, we attempt to predict the future from a study of the stars and planets. Of course, electronic gadgets are available but they seem to me to defeat the whole purpose of sailing, which is to create an intimate relationship with the world we live in. As Robin now understood very well, a yacht on the ocean is the last refuge from other people controlling your life. So far, the politicians have not managed to put a tax on the wind but I believe they are working on it.
I actually enjoyed getting out of bed before dawn and climbing on deck to say good morning to my friends Sirius, Canopus, Zubenelgenubi…Don’t you just love that name? It means the southern claw of the scorpion, Scorpio. He is also in my birth sign, Libra. I call him Zoob for short. And of course there is the Southern Cross; the most beautiful of constellations and the simplest. I am by no means a religious freak but I do believe the Southern Cross, which was easily visible in Palestine 2000 years ago, had something to do with Christianity’s logo. Maybe it was the bright star followed by the Magi.
Unfortunately, you don’t need an astrologer to predict that when conditions are so perfect they can only get worse.

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